#48. Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie (1985): You Never Know What’s Going to Happen – Notes from My 7-Year-Old

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.”

-Victor Hugo

“The face you have at age twenty-five is the face God gave you, but the face you have after fifty is the face you earned.”

-Cindy Crawford

Sometimes I find it tough to read my 7-year-old daughter Macy. She’s mostly happy to see me and I know she loves me, but as I often tell people when describing her, she skews happy. She loves everything. For example, she recently found a note pad where you could list five things that you love. Macy’s list, in order (and spell corrected):

  1. Hugs!
  2. Kisses!
  3. Soccer!
  4. Musicals!
  5. Dinner!
Note - List of Loves

Macy’s list of things she loves. “Dad” did not make the cut.

It is interesting to note that like us here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, Macy is a big fan of the exclamation point. And it is also interesting, maybe more so, to note that although “Dinner!” made the list, “Dad!” did not.

So I was very excited Sunday morning when Macy, after working very diligently on a drawing at the dining room table while I read the paper, handed said drawing to me and said, “I made you a card.” I was even more excited when I read it because it said: “Thank you for being a rock ★ parent! I’m going to miss you so so so so so so so so so much. Love Macy.”

Pride in my own parenting skills swelled within me. I looked at my youngest lovingly and we had the following interaction:

Me: That is so nice Macy. Thank you. (Quick hug ensued leading to more pride swelling). But why are you going to miss me?

Macy: What?

Me: (Showing her the note) You said you were going to miss me so so so so so much, but I’m not going anywhere.

Macy: (Taking a closer look at the card.) Oh, I forgot something.

At this point, Macy took the note back, grabbed a pen, and quickly started writing. It took only a few seconds before she handed me the now augmented note that read as follows: “Thank you for being a rock ★ parent! I’m going to miss you so so so so so so so so so much … when you die! Love Macy.”


Although I was still happy that she was going to miss me, I was understandably a tiny bit conflicted about the prerequisite. It was a little morbid. But in her defense, Macy has been a little preoccupied with death these last few months and I think I know why. First, she recently asked if she could have a fish tank. So, over my objections, we took her to a fish store and brought home a five-gallon fish tank, a miniature castle, some foliage, and three little guppies – Fire, Joey and Sparkle.

All was good with the world for about 16 hours until she woke up the next morning and found Joey lying dead behind the castle. Tears flew from her eyes immediately and she decided that Fire had killed him. I’m not totally sure what Sparkle’s alibi was, but Macy was convinced that Fire was a bad apple. She was inconsolable.

Actually, I take that back. She was somewhat consolable and started to pull it together until I retrieved Joey from the tank and headed to the bathroom to flush him down the toilet at which point we had the following interaction:

Macy: What are you doing with Joey?

Me: I’m going to flush him down the toilet.

Macy: NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! (Tears flying out of eyes once again. Now actually inconsolable.)

Me: What would you like to do with Joey?

Macy: BURY HIM!!!!!!

So shortly thereafter, Macy and I were standing outside in the yard holding a fish funeral for Joey. We buried Joey in a small Kleenex box, his little guppy body laying on a bed of tissues. We said a few words, which was hard given the limited time we knew each other, but it was sweet. And as the last spoonful of dirt covered Joey’s casket, Macy said: “Can we get another fish?”

The second reason Macy has been fascinated with death recently is that I turned 50 this summer. I can barely believe I’m that old, but to my seven-year-old, it is inconceivable. (And you just thought of The Princess Bride). She’s just learning to count that high. In her mind, the difference between 50 and the age of the universe is not that much. Like 20 years.

So because we had many celebrations around my birthday, she was acutely aware that I’m the oldest one in the family that means, of course, that I am going to be the first one to die. And my death will be followed by, in order, Gigi, Sam and Lily thereby leaving Macy the last one standing. The first time she told me this, I was trying to get a sense of whether this chain of events bothered her or comforted her. I’m still not totally sure. But what I was sure of was that I didn’t want her to think that was necessarily how things were going to turn out, so I said something to the effect of, “you never know what’s going to happen.”

I’ll get back to that story in a minute, but first we must detour to Foreign Affairs by Allison Lurie, the 1985 Pulitzer winner that comes in at #48 on our countdown. Foreign Affairs tells the story of Virginia Miner (Vinnie), a fifty-four-year-old spinsterish professor at Corinth University who specializes in children’s literature. She loves travel and is off to London (which she also loves) for a six-month research trip with plans to write a book about playground rhymes. Her mood, however, is a little soured because a critic named L. D. Zimmern recently trashed her work in a nationally circulated magazine.

Also bringing her down is Chuck Mumpson, a sanitary engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma and her seatmate on what would otherwise be a pleasant flight, who proceeds to accost her conversationally. Although currently unmarried, Vinnie couldn’t be less interested. She’s had her share of affairs and even a brief marriage, but at this point in her life, Vinnie has stopped believing that falling or being in love is a good thing. So to silence Chuck, she gives him a copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Unfortunately, this plan ultimately backfires when the smoking, drinking and generally loudly American Chuck contacts her in London. It turns out he has been inspired by Little Lord Fauntleroy to want to trace his own family history. Vinnie slowly becomes involved with his project, and then with him.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story, one of Vinnie’s young colleagues, Fred Turner, has left his wife, Roo, at home for his own sabbatical in London, where he is researching John Gay. In chapters that alternate with those recounting Vinnie’s triumphs and tribulations, we learn that Fred and Roo have quarreled and he fears the marriage is over. He consoles himself with the affections of a beautiful and aristocratic television actress, Lady Rosemary Radley, who gives him the entree into London high life. The exquisite but not so young Rosemary has never managed to have a really successful love relationship—though she is not resigned to this, as Vinnie is. Ultimately, these two stories come together when, quite by accident and with the encouragement of Chuck, Vinnie becomes an emissary for Fred’s estranged wife. What makes this favor more challenging for Vinnie is that Roo’s father is none other than the nefarious critic L. D. Zimmern.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Vinnie’s relationship with Chuck opens her eyes to the fact that she has many years to live and a lot to experience, including love. Literate by nature, Vinnie comes to the realization that literature may have unintentionally betrayed her. “In the world of classic British fiction,” she reflects, ”almost the entire population is under fifty, or even under forty – as was true of the real world when the novel was invented.” Even today, in most novels ”it is taken for granted that people over fifty are as set in their ways as elderly apple trees, and as permanently shaped and scarred by the years they have weathered. The literary convention is that nothing major can happen to them except through subtraction.”

But in real life – or the “real” life of Vinnie – she has many years to live and much to experience. Why, therefore, she concludes, should she ”become a minor character in her own life? Why shouldn’t she imagine herself as an explorer standing on the edge of some landscape as yet unmapped by literature: interested, even excited – ready to be surprised?”

As one who is now near Vinnie’s age in the novel, I absolutely love this and appreciate what Alison Lurie as to say about getting older. Foreign Affairs offers a wry commentary on who we perceive ourselves as being and the sometimes jarring reality of who we are and how much we are constructed by other people’s perceptions of us. The book is witty, truthful (sometimes painfully so), intelligent, warm, humorous, and ultimately inspiring. Fast forward 30 years and I’ll probably suggest Macy read it.

However, it is currently above her reading level, so when Macy handed me back the updated note she had written, I did my best to translate the message. I told her that 50 isn’t that old and (fingers crossed) I have many years of life and living left to do. She didn’t need to miss me quite yet.

As an aside, what I really wanted to do but can’t because she is only seven, was go one level deeper and add that she shouldn’t be anti-death (although again I’m not sure she is). Death is in some ways in underrated. To be clear, I’m not talking about senseless death, or early death, or painful death; not the death of war, terror, cruelty, poverty, abuse, neglect, suicide, disease. But normal death is our admission fee for the privilege of life. It gives life urgency. It makes life worth living. And yes, graying hair and creaky joints are part of that fee. Our lives are finite — so, as we’ve discussed many times here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, we should live them with gusto.

But in the end that conversation didn’t happen and Macy’s takeaway focused on the uncertainly because “you never know what’s going to happen.” So I shouldn’t have been that surprised to find the following message scribbled a few days later on a pineapple note pad:

Note - Pineapple

“Can we please get another dog. We only have two fish and who knows if there gonna die? Love Macy


Photo by Sam Seldon

Photo by Sam Seldon

If you’ve ever read Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, you know that I usually begin by telling a story and then connecting that story – albeit very tenuously and with many contortions – to the book I’m reviewing. Well, today I’m throwing out that formula and I’m going to tell you a story that has absolutely nothing to do any book because the story I’m going to tell is a unique one.

This is a story about Franklin James Clary. I met Frank four or five years ago because we both took the same lunchtime yoga class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I have no recollection what spurred our first conversation, but it probably had something to do simply with the fact that we more often than not placed our mats in the same area of the room and had thus gained some level of familiarity. Or that we’re both kind of chatty.

Whatever the impetus, once we started talking, we quickly made multiple connections. Frank was a foodie and I worked at OpenTable. Frank worked at ToyTalk and the company’s CEO was my neighbor. We both loved music and tattoos and, of course, yoga. You get the point. As you get older and life gets busier, you tend to make fewer and fewer new friends, but this friendship seemed pre-ordained.

As our friendship developed, I quickly learned that Frank was great at everything. Seriously, it was almost annoying. He was way better than me at yoga (granted, a low bar). He could surf and ride a skateboard through SF’s busy streets like a champ. He was an amazing cook, knew a ridiculous amount about wine, and had great hair. He could even dance. And although his day job was a Creative Director of Toy Talk, he also somehow made time to write and photograph for Nopalize, the food blog sponsored by Nopa and Nopalito restaurants.

But I say it was “almost annoying” because when you were with Frank, you didn’t notice that he was good at everything, you noticed that he simply tackled life with a passion rarely rivaled. He got a job at Lucas Film because as a teenager he loved Star Wars and thought it would be “rad” to work there. And it was that same passion and focus that he brought to yoga, photography, writing, surfing, cooking, and whatever else he decided to take on. He would simply will himself to succeed.

But perhaps Frank’s greatest trait, however, wasn’t his ability to improve himself, but instead was his ability to connect with people – and connect people with each other – better than any person I have ever met. A lot of this, I think, had to do with the fact that when Frank added you to his orbit, you were there to stay. One perfect example of this talent occurred last year when I mentioned off-handedly that I was going to Japan for work. Frank asked if I’d be interested in meeting some friends of his while I was there, and I said, “Sure,” not really expecting much to come of it. A few days later this was in my inbox.

From: Frank Clary 

Sent: Thursday, April 24, 2014 4:31 PM

To: John Orta; Tatsuya

Subject: Friend meet Friend 


Allow me to introduce you to my dear friend and colleague Tatsuya. Though we met as professionals in film, it quickly became clear that we also shared a passion for food and lifestyle. When you’d mentioned you were heading to Japan, Tatsuya was the first person that came to mind as he’s someone whose character and tastes I can trust with anyone in any scenario. 
I’ve passed along your schedule including your more specific plans to visit Kyoto and Tatsuya believes he can help accommodate your visit in both Tokyo and Kyoto. He lives in Tokyo himself and mentioned knowing a good person for you to meet in Kyoto if you care to. 


Thanks so much for being so gracious and responsive. I look forward to the opportunity to pay the courtesies back upon your next visit, or for anyone you know who might be visiting the states. 
John is a great person who carries with him a wonderful spirit whenever we cross paths and I’m excited for him to share that with Japan on his journeys. It’s a great fit. I’ll let you both take it from here.


どうもありがとうございます Franklin

Who does that? In this day and age when we live such busy lives, not only did Frank follow up and make the introduction, he made the greatest email introduction in the history of email introductions. Only Frank could describe me as one who “carries with him a wonderful spirit” with a straight face or be genuinely excited for me to share that with Japan. Only Frank could so easily bridge the gap between two strangers who shared neither continent nor language. I have saved this email because it makes me happy every time I read it.

I’m telling you this story because over the 4th of July weekend, Frank was killed in a car accident at the age of 36. I’m still a little in shock but I’m not alone. Tatsuya, the guy Frank introduced me to and who I absolutely met and bonded with in Japan (just as Frank knew would happen) reached out across the globe to share his sadness. And the outpouring of stories on Frank’s Facebook page clearly demonstrate the impact that he made on the Lucas Film community, the Toy Talk community, the Nopalize community, the Yoga community, the CrossFit community, and probably a ton more communities that I don’t even know are communities.

A quick scan of the words and phrases contained in the various posts reveal everything you need to know about Frank: passion, energy, awesome, indelible, friend, love, curiosity, charismatic, energetic, warm, lived life to the fullest, never without a smile, and he made me a better person. Nopalize reposted this interview from last year that is wonderful. But my favorite tribute was a simple hashtag that one of his surfer friends came up with: #livelikefrank.

When tragedies like these happen, people tend to stop and take a moment to hold those close to them a little closer and say things like “remember to live every day like it’s your last.” And, don’t get me wrong, we should definitely all do that. Frank certainly lived life to the fullest. But Frank also took it one step further because he wanted everyone else to live their lives to the fullest as well. He focused on the good in people and nurtured that goodness. Moreover, he then fostered connections between people that he knew should meet but without him probably never would. He created the Community of Frank.

It’s been a tough week. I haven’t been to yoga class since the news and I’m sure when I go and his mat isn’t next to mine it will be even tougher. But I was lucky to know him and for that I’m thankful and because of him I will try to #livelikefrank.

On a Nopalize Seasons field trip.

On a Nopalize Seasons field trip.

Thanks for everything, Dad. Especially listening to AC/DC.


[NOTE: The Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown is taking a pause to honor a man who was better than me in many ways. OK, all ways.]

Joe Horton, my dad, passed away early Saturday morning in his sleep. It was expected and it was peaceful and it was painless and I was there. In other words, he died in the easiest way possible for everyone else, which was certainly consistent with the rest of his life. (If you want to know why he’s a “Horton” and I’m an “Orta,” buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story. I promise it will be worth your while.)

A little bit about my dad. He was selfless. Certainly more selfless than I am, albeit a low bar. I’m sure part of this had to do with the fact that he grew up poor in Los Angeles during the Depression, which is like being really super über poor during any other time during the last century. He once told me a story about how he and his twin brother Sam cried one Christmas morning when they didn’t get a new bicycle they were expecting. His father, my grandfather, went out and sold the one piece of jewelry he owned of any value, his watch, and bought the bicycle. My dad never stopped feeling bad about that, and never asked for much after that. I, on the other hand, once pouted because I had to share a birthday cake on my birthday. I was 35, and the other person on my cake was my 1-year-old daughter. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe; -1 to John.

But it wasn’t just that he didn’t need at lot. It was that he also gave a lot. My mother died when I was 12 and my brother was 10. A single father, he got us to school, doctor appointments, sports practices, piano lessons, play dates and birthday parties, all the while somehow feeding us and working full-time. But it was more than his ability to complete parental mechanics. On top of the driving/cleaning/cooking/everything-else-kids-need, he always made time to pay attention to us whenever we asked.

For example, when I was 12 or 13, I loved music and felt that certain songs were SO BRILLIANT that I needed to share these wise words with my dad. So nearly every day, I would make him come to my room to listen to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Floyd, the Stones, Bowie, Queen, or whatever else I happened to think was SO BRILLIANT at that very second. And he would. He’d stop what he was doing, come and stand in the doorway of my room, nodding his head to the beat. He’d stay until the end of the song, say “that’s great,” and go back to whatever task was at hand (which in all likelihood was something for my brother or me). Knowing his musical tastes now, and knowing how hard it is to get everything done in a day, I’m pretty sure he didn’t love the songs I played for him, and I’m positive he didn’t have the time to stop what he was doing to listen to them. And yet, I remember hearing him, on Sunday mornings in particular, while making French toast, singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap).” I can’t even make French toast. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe.

It wasn’t just selflessness that he bested me at. He was also nicer, braver, and more handsome. He fought in a war. Listening to his stories about going out in LA in the mid-1940s, I’m pretty sure he was also a better dancer. And I’m absolutely sure he was a better athlete. Despite throwing me endless grounders and tight spirals, there was no way I could match his natural ability. My dad played football for UCLA under Harry “Red” Saunders. I regularly smoked cigarettes while playing rec basketball in high school. Like during the games. Another +1 to Joe.

Although playing football was his passion, my dad was a true fan of all sports so even though I never excelled at sports, I do excel at watching sports on TV. He let me, at 7-years-old, stay up to watch Gar Heard in the famous triple OT Suns-Celtics game in the NBA finals. We watched Nadia Comanici get a perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. We witnessed the Immaculate Reception, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in three swings in the ’77 World Series, Leon Spinks upset Ali for the heavyweight crown, Bird’s Indiana State v. Magic’s Michigan State NCAA Championship Game, the Miracle on Ice, Borg-McEnroe, The Catch and the last two Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed. I’d give Joe a point for this, but allowing me to watch this much television, mostly past my bedtime, was questionable parenting.

As kids are prone to do, I grew up, moved to San Francisco, became a lawyer and started a family. We spoke less, not because anything came between us, but because life is busy. Then, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He battled the cancer – and battled it well – for a long time. True to form, he didn’t talk about it much, didn’t ask for much, choosing to battle it on his own. But cancer plays the long con and last summer, I got a call in the middle of the night from my brother. “Dad’s not doing well. You should come home.” I told him I was in London. “Am I going to make it?” “Not sure,” was his response.

So I got on the first flight I could get the next day and flew from London to San Francisco, took a cab home, unpacked and repacked (there isn’t a ton of overlap in summer UK and summer Phoenix wardrobes), went back to the airport and flew to Phoenix, the entire time wondering if I was going to make it on time and trying to figure out the last conversation we had and whether I told him I loved him. I needed to tell him what a great dad he was. When I arrived in Phoenix, I grabbed my rental car and drove straight to the hospital, raced up to his room and found….

…him sitting in a chair watching the Diamondbacks game and having lunch. “What the fuck?” That may have either been thought or spoken but in either case my brother gave me the “dude-sorry-but-seriously-he-was-on-his-death-bed-last-night” look. It wasn’t his fault. Turns out the cancer had shut down one of his kidneys and was wreaking havoc on the other. The doctors said that despite his recovery from the brink, the end was near and sent us home with hospice and a hospital bed.

Now I had the chance to give something back to him: I could be with him at the end. I flew my wife and kids in to say goodbye. We told stories and went through photo albums and laughed a lot (most significantly about my apparently very poor grades in Religious Studies, which my kids discovered in reading my old report cards that my dad had saved). At the end of the weekend, my wife and the kids said goodbye and headed back home. I stayed to wait for the end. Selflessness counter: +1 to John.

But it turns out the end wasn’t near. After about a week of watching my dad watch the Diamondbacks and eat lunch, I finally had to address the elephant in the room. “Dad,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to die anytime soon.” “How long is this going to take do you think?” he asked. “I have no idea. How do you feel?” “I feel pretty good.” I said, “Pops, I love you, but I need to get back home. Call me if you think you’re dying and I’ll come back.” Selflessness counter: -1 to John

But THAT call never came. Instead, I got a call that they kicked him out of hospice, which is like getting kicked out of the Hotel California. And we took advantage of it. We met in San Luis Obispo for a weekend. He threw himself an 86th birthday party, and we went to it. My daughter Lily and I met him in LA when he went to his UCLA football reunion in November. My son Sam and I flew to Phoenix over MLK weekend. Six weeks ago my dad went to Barcelona because he had never been. I’m not kidding. +1 to Joe.

But the doctors had said that at some point he would begin to feel bad. And eventually they were right. About a week after coming back from Barcelona he went to the hospital and the doctors told him that the cancer had spread. It was a matter of weeks, not months.

So for the last five weeks I’ve been flying back and forth to Phoenix on the weekends and we did what we’ve always done best: watch sports. I rooted for the Warriors and he rooted for the Clippers (he won). I rooted for the Diamondbacks and he rooted for the Dodgers (I won). We watched Seung-yul Noh win the Zurich Classic, J.B. Holmes win the Wells Fargo, and Brendan Todd win the Byron Nelson. We even watched old guys play tennis on the ATP Champions Tour.

But by far the most fun the last few weeks has been watching California Chrome win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. My dad loved this horse. He loved him because he cost $8,000. He loved him because his owners were first time horse owners and called themselves Dumb Ass Partners. He loved him because his 77-year-old trainer had never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. And he loved him most of all because he was from California, and a California horse hadn’t won the Derby since 1962.

Thursday night I got a call from my brother that was very similar to the one I received 10 months before when I was in London. “You need to come home.” So I took the first flight home in the morning, again wondering if I had told my dad I loved him when I left the weekend before.

My brother had warned me that he really wasn’t responding, but when I arrived early the next morning, he recognized me immediately. We hugged and I quickly told him that I loved him and that he was a great father. He told me I was a great son. I told him he was a better dad than I was a son and thanked him for listening to all the songs I made him listen to.

Then I asked, “Dad, do you remember the AC/DC song you used to sing when making French toast?” And without missing a beat, he busted into his best Bon Scott imitation and started singing the chorus: “Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap.” “Yes!” I said, and together we sang a few verses. +1 to Joe.

It turned out to be his final point. When our singing stopped, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. That was really the last actual conversation we had. By the end of day, I’m not sure he recognized me anymore and he passed that night.

And if I was looking for some sort of sign, which I wasn’t, I was given one by 97.9 KUPD, the classic rock station that existed when I was a boy and continues to this day. On my way to the airport as I left Phoenix, they played, back to back, “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The only thing weirder would have been if they’d played “Stairway to Heaven” next, and although tempted, I didn’t wait for the commercial break to end and gave the keys back to Thrifty Rental Cars. I had a year to say goodbye to the most selfless man I’ll ever know, and I think I did it well. And if you’re still keeping score (and I am, but remember I’m not that selfless), I’ll take this as my final +1.

Saying goodbye was a dirty deed, but it was done dirt cheap. So don’t fear the reaper, Joe. Climb the stairway to heaven. And if California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, I’ll know you made it.